By Midge Pierce OpEd
Portland residents agree that affordable housing is critically needed. What divides us is whether the Residential Infill Proposal will achieve it.
Missing Middle Housing, a key Infill concept under consideration as a tool for affordability, is Utopian in theory. In practice, it is untested and unproven.
An October revision adding a Housing Opportunity Overlay pushes multi-unit middle housing further into single family neighborhoods than the original 1/4 mile band adjacent to centers and corridors.
The overlays, in effect, are upzoning that would increase residential density an estimated 300 percent by permitting duplexes, triplexes plus attached and, in many cases, detached ADUs. Density allowances in R5 zones would be greater than what is currently allowed in R 2.5 zones.
While residents find common ground in reducing new housing scale, concepts that encourage demolition will destabilize neighborhoods, displace young, old and at risk, and obliterate the ambience that makes Portland attractive to so many in the first place.
Bulldozer-besieged SE Portland would be very nearly consumed. Those who don’t believe this could happen have only to look at the recent election to know that the unexpected happens.
Out of concern that RIP could bury cherished streets and greenery under a tsunami of development with false promises of affordable housing, I tossed aside my reporter’s cap and testified during City Council’s November hearings.
Among my appeals was the idea to pilot test concepts and evaluate social and economic impacts on people, infrastructure and transportation before taking Infill so deeply into neighborhoods. I recommended substantive incentives for internal conversions, preservation protections and truth in zoning.
RIP’s Housing Opportunity Overlay is a shortcut that avoids regulatory scrutiny. In the City’s rush to serve the future, it crushes the property rights and financial security of scores of current residents who have invested life savings in homes. It turns zoning into fiction, undermining Portland’s ethos of fairness, balance, transparency and sustainability.
The RIP survey used to justify replacing single family zones with the Housing Opportunity Overlay was based on some 1400 comments. By contrast, 30-plus Neighborhood Associations representing more than 100,000 residents denounced Infill concepts.
During my reporting, I heard from many citizens who said the survey was slanted toward desired outcomes and difficult to understand unless you were a City planner, contractor or policy wonk.
This is hardly the ringing endorsement city planners used to extend the Infill boundaries. It also contradicts an earlier poll that indicated demolition was SE Portland residents’ number one concern.
Planners in comparable cities like Denver are appalled that Portland, known for its progressive planning, would alter residential zoning without the specific input of impacted citizens.
My own neighborhood has denounced the City’s inadequate Infill outreach to Portland’s 95 NAs, a process antithetical to the thorough pre-approval of the 20-year Comprehensive Plan.
My views mirror those of RIP stakeholder advisory committee members I labeled the SAC Seven whose concerns about demolition were ignored. Project manager Morgan Tracy told me a Seven did indeed raise discussion about testing the Infill project. With the developer-heavy committee, it failed to gain traction.
With the upending of the Eastside at stake, I continued my testimony with appeal for tree protections and ample room for families. Given the large tracts of available land on the Outer Eastside, I recommended redirecting development to areas where, until recently, the City emphasized a pressing need for investment in infrastructure, sidewalks, parks, services, school and jobs.
I also chastised the City for being led by builders who put profits ahead of people. Developers with deep pockets hire paid lobbyists to offer free food at beer pubs and misguide activists who pass out buttons claiming they love housing choice.
One choice is to protect Portland’s character and charming, existing housing stock. Preservation is not a dirty word. A desire for trees, gardens and a backyard swingset is not racist or exclusionary or a one-way ticket to the suburbs.
The final thought I left with the City: If you get it wrong, there is no going back.